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Marketplace Radio Tells Us the National Debt is a Really Big Number Print
Friday, 05 December 2014 05:59

I have complained at length about news stories that give us really big numbers with no context, which they should know are absolutely meaningless to almost all their listeners. Marketplace Radio did exactly this early in the week when it told listeners in a short segment:

"Here's a big number: $18 trillion. 

"That's the national debt of the United States of America. Yesterday, we surpassed the $18 trillion mark for the first time.

"Partisan and or political inferences will not be entertained."

There you go. Do you feel informed now?

It's hard to see what information anyone could get from this comment other than the U.S. debt is a really big number and presumably someone at Marketplace radio thinks its too big. (The latter information is ordinary reserved for designated commentaries and opinion pieces.)

Last year, the NYT committed itself to trying to put numbers like this in some context that would make them meaningful to their audience. David Leonhardt, who was then the Washington bureau chief, even joked about how the sort of reporting in this Marketplace segment is the same as telling their audience "really big number."

It would not have been difficult to put the $18 trillion figure in a context that would be more meaningful. Economists usually measure debt relative to GDP. That's a pretty simple calculation. If it wanted to give us the economic impact of the debt, it could have told us that the interest rate on long-term debt is a bit over 2.2 percent, well below normal levels. If it wanted to report on the burden to taxpayers, it could have told us that interest payments are equal to roughly 1.3 percent of GDP, less than half the burden in the early 1990s.

This information, all of which can be obtained in seconds from the Congressional Budget Office, would have allowed listeners to better understand the importance of the $18 trillion debt figure.

The Retirement Situation: It's Worse Than You Read In the NYT Print
Friday, 05 December 2014 05:29

Floyd Norris (who unfortunately has accepted a buyout and will be leaving the paper) had an interesting piece on the disappearance of traditional defined benefit pensions. He notes that millions of workers in multi-employer plans are at risk of sharp reductions in benefits. Detroit city workers and retirees have already seen sharp declines in benefits.

After pointing out that few workers now have secure pensions, he then refers to a new book by Alicia Munnell, Charles D. Ellis and Andrew D. Eschtruth, which he cites as saying that the typical household near retirement has only $110,000 in a 401(k). Actually this figure refers to the roughly half of near retirees that have a 401(k). The median near retirement household has considerably less money in a retirement account.

According to our recent analysis of the Fed's 2013 Survey of Consumer Finance, the average net worth outside of housing wealth for families in the middle quintile of households between the age of 55-64 was just $89,300. This figure includes all assets in 401(k)s, plus any money held in checking and saving accounts and any non-housing tangible assets, like a car or boat. it would subtract non-mortgage debt like credit cards, car loans, and student loans.

The average home equity stake for households in the middle quintile in this age cohort was $76,400, this accounted for 54.6 percent of the home's value. In 1989, households in the middle quintile in this age group had more than 81 percent of their home paid off on average.

Chris Rock, Ezra Klein, and the Second Great Depression Myth Print
Thursday, 04 December 2014 08:12

I have to take some issue with Ezra Klein in his criticisms of Chris Rock. Ezra is upset with Rock's suggestion that Obama would have been best off letting the financial industry and the auto companies collapse, and then picking up the pieces. Rock argued that Obama would have gotten more credit from this path than he is getting now for having bailed out firms and effectively muddled along.

Ezra responds that Rock's plan is:

"morally odious: it would have meant putting millions of Americans through harrowing pain in order to help Obama out politically."

He then argues that it would have given us a second Great Depression.

On the first point, I completely agree that putting millions of people out of work for political ends is morally odious. However, if we flip this over for a moment and make the question one of putting millions of people temporarily out of work for the ostensible longer term benefit of the economy, it would be much more difficult to call the choice morally odious. At least if we did, then we would have to say that most of the central bankers in the last century and the politicians who appointed them were morally odious.

It is central banking 101 that you raise interest rates to slow the economy and throw millions of people out of work in order to head off inflation. Paul Volcker is a hero in elite Washington circles precisely because he raised interest rates and threw millions of people out of work in order to bring an end to the inflation of the 1970s. To his admirers (which do not include me), the longer term benefits to the economy were worth the pain suffered by the millions of unemployed and their families. So the idea of throwing millions out of work to advance important economic ends is widely accepted in policy circles, even if most of us may agree that it is unacceptable to deliberately throw large numbers of people out of work as a campaign strategy.



Obama Claims that Economic Reality Will Make It Hard to Get Political Support for His Trade Deals Print
Thursday, 04 December 2014 07:55

A Washington Post article on President Obama's efforts to secure fast-track trade authority in order to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) included an incredible comment from Obama:

"'It is somewhat challenging because of . . . Americans feeling as if their wages and incomes have stagnated' because of increasing global competition, Obama said. 'There’s a narrative there that makes for some tough politics.'"

Of course President Obama is correct that this "narrative," which most economists would say corresponds to the reality, makes it difficult to pass more trade deals that will further disadvantage workers in the United States. It's not clear why President Obama would be surprised that most of the public opposes trade deals that are likely to redistribute more income upward.

According to the article, the administration also inaccurately characterized the nature of the TPP.

"The administration has argued that the trade deals will boost U.S. exports and lower tariffs for American goods in the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region, where the United States has faced increasing economic competition from China."

The deal will have little impact on tariffs in most of the countries that are parties to the TPP, since they are already low. Furthermore, the deal includes a large amount of protectionism in the form of stronger patent and copyright protection. Higher licensing fees and royalties will make the drug and entertainment industry richer, but are likely to crowd out other exports.

It is also worth noting that jobs depend on net exports (exports minus imports), not exports. (If we increase exports, but imports rise by a larger amount, then we on net lose jobs.) If the administration doesn't understand that it is net exports that affect employment, and not just exports, then the media should be doing intense ridicule. This would be like Sarah Palin saying she could see Russia from her house, but much more serious. 

The Meaning of Slow Growth in China Print
Wednesday, 03 December 2014 08:32

Eduardo Porter ends an interesting piece on declining income inequality in Latin America with a warning that the decline may not continue, insofar as exports of commodities was a major cause. The argument is that China's growth is slowing, and since China was a major market for exports, this means that growth in demand in the future might be much slower than growth in demand in the last decade.

The problem with this view, which is frequently repeated in the media, is that it ignores the fact that China is much larger now than it was a decade ago. China's economy has more than doubled in size over the last decade. This means from the standpoint of the world economy, 7.0 percent growth in China today has far more impact than 10.0 percent did a decade ago. It may well be the case that demand for commodities exported from Latin America is weakening, but if we are comparing the impact of growth in China on this demand, it is undoubtedly a larger factor in 2014 than it was in 2004.

Edsall and Obamacare: More Confusion Print
Wednesday, 03 December 2014 05:26

Thomas Edsall used his column today to agree with Charles Schumer that the Democrats made a mistake by pushing through Obamacare and should have instead focused on the economy. As I've noted previously, this is wrong on both sides.

On the economy side, what does Schumer think the Democrats would have accomplished if they had never said a word about health care? Would they have gotten another $20 billion a year in stimulus spending, $30 billion, $40 billion? Plug in your number, but it doesn't have to get too high before it doesn't pass the laugh test. Of course any additional spending would have been good both for creating jobs and the longer term benefits, but if Schumer is claiming that barring a whole different political world (i.e. doing a lot more than skipping health care reform) we would have seen enough stimulus to make a qualitative difference in the state of economy, and the public's view of the economy, then he's been smoking something strong.

There is a plausible alternative economic story, but it has nothing to do with Obamacare. Instead of using Big Government to protect the Wall Street gang from their own greed and incompetence, Obama could have let the market work its magic and put most of the Wall Streeters out of business. (Left to the market, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America and Citigroup certainly would have gone bankrupt.) He could have used the Justice Department to put the Wall Street felons behind bars. (Knowingly putting fraudulent loans in a mortgage backed security is fraud. Selling an investment grade rating for a mortgage backed security is fraud.)  And, he could have tapped into populist sentiment to impose a Wall Street sales tax that would tax financial speculation. Even the I.M.F. has recommended increasing taxes on the financial industry, recognizing it as an undertaxed sector. 

In short, there is a populist economic path that Obama could have pursued that would have put the economy and the Democrats in a very different position. But nothing about the Affordable Care Act (ACA) prevented them from going this route. Furthermore, it's unlikely that Senator Schumer has any interest in following this path, unless the NYT neglected to cover his endorsement of a financial transaction tax and the jailing of Wall Street bankers.



Bankers Who Commit Fraud, Like Murderers, Are Supposed to Go to Jail Print
Tuesday, 02 December 2014 09:45

Wow, some things are really hard for elite media types to understand. In his column in the Washington Post, Richard Cohen struggles with how we should punish bankers who commit crimes like manipulating foreign exchange rates (or Libor rates, or pass on fraudulent mortgages in mortgage backed securities, or don't follow the law in foreclosing on homes etc.). 

Cohen calmly tells readers that criminal prosecutions of public companies are not the answer, pointing out that the prosecution of Arthur Andersen over its role in perpetuating the Enron left 30,000 people on the street, most of whom had nothing to do with Enron. Cohen's understanding of economics is a bit weak (most of these people quickly found other jobs), but more importantly he is utterly clueless about the issue at hand.

Individuals are profiting by breaking the law. The point is make sure that these individuals pay a steep personal price. This is especially important for this sort of white collar crime because it is so difficult to detect and prosecute. For every case of price manipulation that gets exposed, there are almost certainly dozens that go undetected.

This means that when you get the goods on a perp, you go for the gold -- or the jail cell. We want bankers to know that if they break the law to make themselves even richer than they would otherwise be, they will spend lots of time behind bars if they get caught. This would be a real deterrent, unlike the risk that their employer might face some sort of penalty.

Why is it so hard for elite types to understand putting bankers in jail?

Andrew Ross Sorkin on Wall Street Paying to Get Regulators Print
Tuesday, 02 December 2014 04:00

Andrew Ross Sorkin used his column today to complain about the AFL-CIO and others making an issue over Wall Street banks paying unearned deferred compensation to employees who take positions in government. He argues that the people leaving Wall Street for top level government positions are victims of a "populist shakedown."

Sorkins's complaint seems more than a bit bizarre given recent economic history. In the housing bubble years the Wall Street folks made themselves incredibly wealthy packaging and selling bad mortgage backed securities. When this practice threatened to put them all into bankruptcy, the Treasury and Fed stepped in with a bottomless pile of below market interest rate loans and loan guarantees to keep them afloat.

This was explicit policy as former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner makes very clear in his autobiography. He commented repeatedly that there would be "no more Lehmans," and he ridiculed the "old testament" types who thought that somehow the banks should be made to pay for their incompetence and left to the mercy of the market.

The result is that the Wall Street banks are bigger and more powerful than ever. By contrast, more than 10 million homeowners are still underwater, the cohort of middle income baby boomers are hitting retirement with virtually nothing but their Social Security and Medicare to support them, and most of the workforce is likely to go a decade without seeing wage growth. And Geithner is now making a fortune at a private equity company and gives every indication in his book of thinking that he had done a great job.

This state of affairs would probably not exist if the Treasury had been full of people without Wall Street connections. If we had more academics, union officials, and people with business backgrounds other than finance, it is likely that all the solutions to the economic crisis created by Wall Street would not have involved saving Wall Street as a first priority. (And, we would not have that silly second Great Depression myth as the guiding story for public policy. Getting out of the Great Depression only required spending money -- even Wall Street folks could figure that one out.) 

Anyhow, the AFL-CIO is right to raise questions about policies that further Wall Street's dominance of economic and financial policy. It's striking that Sorkin can't even see a problem. 

Horrors! Germany Will See a Decline in the Ratio of Workers to Retirees Over the Next Fifty Years Print
Monday, 01 December 2014 07:41

Yep, that's right, just as it did over the last fifty years. Nonetheless, the NYT thinks we should be very worried telling us:

"The population shift will be a major problem by 2060, when there will only be 1.3 workers per retiree, against 2.3 now."

Of course if we go back 50 years it would have been almost 5.0 workers to retiree. (The OECD puts the ratio at 4.9 in 1964, compared with 2.9 today and a projection of 1.5 in 2064.) So basically we will see the sort of demographic crisis going forward as we have seen in the past.

But the hard to get good help crowd is very worried. Remarkably, the piece never once mentions wages. The traditional way in which employers dealt with shortages of labor is to raise wages. The employers that can't afford to pay the going wage go out of business. It's called "capitalism." This is the reason that most people don't still work on farms. Wages are not rising especially rapidly in Germany, which seems to contradict the headline of the piece, "German population drop spells skills shortage in Europe's powerhouse."

The piece also gives readers Germany's official unemployment rate of 6.6 percent, as opposed to OECD harmonized rate of 5.0 percent. This is likely to mislead readers since almost no one will know that Germany counts part-time workers in their unemployment rate. By contrast, the OECD harmonized rate essentially uses the same methodology as the United States. (This is a piece from Reuters, but presumably the NYT's editors can make edits so that it is understandable to its readers.)

Finally, an entry in the great typos on the month contest:

"There is a particular deficit of workers with adequate qualifications in maths, computing, science and technology."

Question for Brad DeLong and the Debt School of the Downturn: What Would Our Saving Rate Be If We Didn't Have Debt? Print
Monday, 01 December 2014 05:32

Brad DeLong tells us that he is moving away from the cult of the financial crisis (the weakness of the economy in 2014 is somehow due to Lehman having collapsed in 2008 -- economists can believe lots of mystical claims about the world) and to the debt theory of the downturn. Being a big fan of simplicity and a foe of unnecessary complexity in economics, I have always thought that the story was the lost of housing wealth pure and simple. (And yes folks, this was foreseeable before the collapse. Your favorite economists just didn't want to look.) 

Just to be clear on the distinction, the loss of wealth story says it really would not have mattered much if everyone's housing wealth went from $100k to zero, as opposed to going from plus $50k to minus $50k. The really story was that people lost $100k in housing wealth (roughly the average loss per house), not that they ended up in debt. Just to be clear, the wealth effect almost certainly differs across individuals. Bill Gates would never even know if his house rises or falls in value by $100k. On the other hand, for folks whose only asset is their home, a $100k loss of wealth is a really big deal.

The debt story never made much sense to me for two reasons. First, the housing wealth effect story fit the basic picture very well. Are we supposed to believe that the housing wealth effect that we all grew up to love stopped working in the bubble years? The data showed the predicted consumption boom during the bubble years, followed by a fallback to more normal levels when the bubble burst.

The other reason is that the debt story would imply truly heroic levels of consumption by the indebted homeowners in the counter-factual. Currently just over 9 million families are seriously underwater (more than 25 percent negative equity), down from a peak of just under 13 million in 2012. Let's assume that if we include the marginally underwater homeowners we double these numbers to 18 million and 26 million.

How much more money do we think these people would be spending each year, if we just snapped our fingers and made their debt zero? (Each is emphasized, because the issue is not if some people buy a car in a given year, the point is they would have buy a car every year.) An increase of $5,000 a year would be quite large, given that the median income of homeowners is around $70,000. In this case, we would see an additional $90 billion in consumption this year and would have seen an additional $130 billion in consumption in 2012.

Would this have gotten us out of the downturn? It wouldn't where I do my arithmetic. For example, compare it to a $500 billion trade deficit than no one talks about. Furthermore, the finger snapping also would have a wealth effect. In 2012 we would have added roughly $1 trillion in wealth to these homeowners by eliminating their negative equity. Assuming a housing wealth effect of 5 to 7 cents on the dollar, that would imply additional consumption of between $50 billion to $70 billion a year, eliminating close to half of the debt story. So how is the downturn a debt story? (You're welcome to put in a higher average boost to consumption for formerly negative equity households, but you have to do it with a straight face.)

Finally, getting to the question in my headline, the current saving rate out of disposable income is 5 percent. This is lower than we ever saw until the stock wealth effect in the late 1990s pushed it down to 4.4 percent in 1999, it hit 4.2 percent in 2000. The saving rate rose again following the collapse of the stock bubble, but then fell to 3.0 percent in 2007. The question then for our debt fans is what they think the saving rate would be absent another bubble, if we eliminated all the negative equity.


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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.